Category: Best Documentary Feature


SearchingForSugarMan1

(A quick aside before my actual review begins. I have to do two movie reviews today. I watched this Oscar-winning documentary last night before I went to sleep and as soon as I woke up today, my family went to the mall to watch Star Trek Into Darkness. So, if this review for this excellent documentary seems short or rushed, I apologize. )

When I was writing about music in New York City, I found myself overwhelmed with the simple fact that there are an astounding number of talented musicians out there, but unless the cards play exactly right, most of them won’t get noticed in indie music circles let alone gain mainstream exposure. The bands that get famous are the ones that sell and that isn’t always a mark of talent; anyone who’s ever seen the sales numbers of a Nickelback album know that you can make awful, misogynistic music and still sell like hot-cakes. For artists (and I consider myself one as I’m an aspiring screenwriter), we may not make art for money or fame, but we at least appreciate recognition of our talents. When an astonishingly great talent goes totally unrecognized, it’s simply a crime, and 2012’s Searching for Sugar Man chronicles a truly unsung American folk rock artist who spent most of his life in total obscurity not knowing that halfway around the world, he was a cultural icon.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a strikingly voiced and notoriously shy folk singer by the name of Sixto Rodriguez (though her performed primarily under the mononym, Rodriguez) made waves in the Detroit bar music scene with his gritty lyrics of urban poverty and repression and his general anti-establishment atmosphere as well as from his more general talents as a musician and a songwriter. Rodriguez was offered a record deal from Sussex Records where he released not one but two albums. Both records, Cold Facts and Coming From Reality, were beloved by critics and musical insiders alike, but no one in America bought the album and it didn’t sell. Rodriguez was let go from his record label, and he quietly disappeared into obscurity and no one knew whether he was still alive and the rumor was that he had killed himself on stage.

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However, unbeknownst to Rodriguez or even his own record label, his albums became smash hits in apartheid-era South Africa. Some American girl brought the album to the country and before any one knew it, Rodriguez became an underground sensation. His message of personal liberation and recognition of the hardships that minorities and the impoverished faced resonated with a nation suffering under the boot heels of racial segregation and an oppressive regime. Rodriguez’s music was as popular in South Africa as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles. His music was considered by many to be a soundtrack to their generation’s struggles. And, in the 1990s, two fans of Rodriguez make it their goal to uncover the mystery behind their favorite musician, and that’s where the magic of the film really begins.

I don’t want to say much more about the events that unfold in this film because for most Americans, Rodriguez will be a total mystery and much of the pleasure of the film is watching the truth slowly be unraveled. Because there isn’t much period footage for when the investigative aspects of the film took place (the late 90s) and there especially isn’t footage of Rodriguez in his 70s prime (because nobody cared who he was), Searching for Sugar Man plays out mostly through interviews as well as extensive use of Rodriguez’s catalog of music (to display how truly talented he is). The film may not have something grand to say about the human condition, but as a portrayal of the often unrewarding and often non-existent path to stardom, the documentary aptly explores the less glamorous side of an artist’s life in a manner akin to the spiritually similar In the Shadow of the Stars.

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The film wouldn’t have worked had Rodriguez’s music not been as powerful as the filmmakers and the various individuals interviewed made it seem. The whole movie is premised on the notion that Rodriguez was essentially as talented as Bob Dylan but simply couldn’t sell. And if he wasn’t that good, the movie would have seemed unnecessary. Thankfully, he is as good as advertised if not better. I was a rock journalist in New York City, and just like movies, I have a pretty prolific knowledge of music. I had never heard of Rodriguez outside of the context of the buzz surrounding this film. His music is phenomenal and reminds me of Van Morrison meets Bob Dylan. From a pure talent perspective, he should have been one of the biggest names of the 1970s, and hopefully, this Academy Award winning film should help make more Americans aware of his existence.

I still need to review Star Trek Into Darkness as well as do some work for Bonnaroo. I’m doing some coverage of the festival for the website that I wrote for in New York City and I have an article due on Friday. I need to work on it because I start a new job tomorrow, and I’m unsure what my schedule will look like for the rest of this week. I’ll leave on this note then. If you have even a passing interest in classic rock and 1960s/1970s folk music, you need to listen to Rodriguez right now. I will be buying the soundtrack to this movie as soon as I get my first paycheck at my new job. And if you enjoy the music and enjoy documentaries, check out Searching for Sugar Man which is a riveting look into a rock icon that never was.

Final Score: A-

 

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Undefeated1

I work a lot this week. I’m not complaining. I get a paycheck and this is one of my last weeks as a manager before I voluntarily step down to just being a part-timer (cause working nearly 30 hour weeks and being a full-time college student does not really equate to academic success). One of the downsides of working and doing school is that I will occasionally watch a movie and then not have time to actually review the film til several days later. I.e., that’s just what happened after I finished the truly excellent Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated. It’s arguably the best documentary that I’ve ever watched, and it deserves a better review than I can give it after not having much time to think about it since viewing it in the wee, wee hours of Wednesday morning.

It’s very easy to make films with schmaltzy heroes that bring deliverance to some underprivileged group. The Blind Side and The Help are both built on fantasy and racial condescension (The Blind Side is a true story but plays hard and loose with the real life facts of Michael Oher). It’s harder to make a gritty, realistic story full of unsympathetic leads and outright bad people (read: Happiness). The hardest type of movie to make though is one with real-life heroes that doesn’t feel manipulative or unnecessary. To make a film with an uplifting message that exists for a reason other than to just make us feel better about ourselves. 2011’s Undefeated clears that bar and sticks the landing.

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Undefeated is the truly inspiring, real-life recording of the trials and tribulations of the Manassass Tigers, a struggling inner-city football team in Memphis, Tennessee. The team hasn’t made it to the play-offs in years, and in their entire 110 year existence as a high-school, they’ve never won a play-off game. Volunteer head coach Bill Courtney intends to turn the team around. It’s his sixth year as the team’s coach, and with his current crop of seniors, his odds of making to the play-offs have never been better. But, football is secondary to helping to shape these young boys into men for Coach Courtney, and the Coach always keeps character at the forefront for his young athletes.

Alongside Coach Courtney, the film also paints a painfully honest and intimate portrait of the lives of several of the players on the team. O.C. Brown is the team’s star athlete and the only one with real college prospects. Although O.C. is very poor and lives with his grandmother, one of the assistant coaches allows him to stay at his house to help tutor him so he can pass the ACTs to get into school. “Money” Brown is the brains on the team but can’t afford college and tears his ACL during an early game in the season. And the team bad boy, Chavis Daniels, has a massive chip on his shoulders, but Coach Courtney refuses to turn his back on him even when he crosses the line one too many times.

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My viewing experience of Undefeated for the first time was one of the most emotional experiences of my entire movie-viewing career. It’s not an especially difficult task to make me cry, but to have me uncontrollably sobbing is a feat only a handful of movies have accomplished. Undefeated took me to that place three times and I legitimately spent the last hour or so of the film going in and out of tears. It was the rare film that was both exceptionally honest and true. It didn’t hold back from how awful these kids lives were and what little hope many of them had once high school ended. But when it delivered its moments of uplift, it struck a more emotional chord than I can almost begin to describe.

I’m not sure if documentary film directors are eligible for the Best Director award at the Oscars, but if they are, it’s a crime that Undefeated‘s
Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin weren’t nominated (and the film definitely deserved some type of editing recognition). Though the film is a documentary, it never stops having a cinematic feel, and if you hadn’t told me before hand that this film was a documentary, I would have honestly believed that it was just a very authentic feeling film. The movie carries such dramatic weight and is a seriously visual undertaking that even people who don’t enjoy documentaries should find plenty to attach themselves to in this film.

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I hope it’s clear that I have a lot to say about this movie. It now joins The Tree of Life as arguably the best film of 2011 (and it’s infinitely more accessible than Terrence Malick’s opus), and it simply eclipses every other documentary that I’ve reviewed thus far. The film gets favorable comparisons to Hoop Dreams (which I’ve never seen) if you want more context for the film’s import. But, as I’ve said, I watched the movie before going to bed at like 4 A.M. Tuesday (so technically Wednesday), and while many of the heart-wrenching details of the film have certainly stuck with me, I no longer feel like I can do them proper justice after this extended absence. All you need to know is that this film gets my rare perfect score (though not so rare this week since the last movie I reviewed, The Godfather: Part II, also got this score) and that I don’t give “A+”s away lightly.

Final Score: A+

 

Before people get themselves all in a tizzy over my review of Who Are the Debolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?, I want to clarify something about the way I look at films. The best movies are timeless. Casablanca is as powerful today as it was 70 years ago. The same thing can be said for The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, or Rebel Without a Cause (obviously with different amounts of time involved). I’m sure there are great films being made today that will be timeless, but I am wise enough to accept that many films I love that seem so relevant now will look silly or naive in 50 years (I doubt I’ll still be writing about movies by the time I’m 73 although I can hope. It’s not that I doubt I’ll still be writing; I just doubt I’ll live that long). Who Are the Debolts? is an inspiring and heartfelt documentary from the late ’70s that seems such a product of its time that I’m afraid I’ll never be able to get the gooey schmaltz of this film out of my TV. I certainly enjoyed the film but it seems so absurdly optimistic and joyful that I can’t help but feel certain elements of it are simply too good to be true and intentionally edited to leave out some uglier truths that assuredly abounded in this film.

The Debolt family, led by Mary and Bob, isn’t your ordinary American family from the 1970’s, though they’d be angry if you told them there was anything they couldn’t do. With Mary’s five children from her first marriage (she was a widow) and one child from Bob’s initial marriage, Mary and Bob Debolt adopted 13 children over the years. Of various races (though primarily Vietnamese orphans from the war) and ages (because they’ve been adopting children for so long), Bob and Mary Debolt took in the kids that no other family wanted. Nearly all of their adopted children suffer from some severe physical handicap or another, whether it’s permanently crippled legs from polio or injuries suffered during the war, blindness, or lacking any limbs whatsoever, these were children that desperately needed love but no one else would give it to them until the Debolts came around. Showing the daily life in the Debolts house when there are still 12 kids living there (the 7 oldest had gotten older and moved out) and the struggles and triumphs of this happy and unique family.

I feel like I have to be the most cynical asshole on the planet to find reasons to criticize this movie which shows two of the most hard-working and loving parents I’ve ever seen. The amount of love in this family’s heart is astounding, and I have nothing but respect for them. It was a struggle as a child when my family opened our home to four foster siblings with no physical defects. I can only imagine how tough it must have been to take in 13 kids who were severely handicapped. And that’s the film’s problem in a nutshell. I have to imagine how tough this was because the film is all about the positive things that happened when this family took in all of these kids. It doesn’t do a very good job of showing how difficult this life must be and just what kinds of sacrifices Mary and Bob had to make in order for this to work out. It just didn’t seem especially realistic. There are moments where you see how rough it is. Watching the young African-American adopted daughter with no arms or legs strap herself into her prosthetic body was heart-breaking as was watching one of their newest children, the blind and crippled J.R., fail to make his way up the stairs, which the family calls “the mountain” because it feels like you climbed a mountain when you finally scale it on your own for the first time. However, too much of the time the movie went out of its way to be sugary-sweet and it lacked any authenticity because of it.

If you’ve ever been part of a family that adopted kids (or were adopted yourself) or you were part of a family that opened itself up to foster care, you should definitely watch Who Are the Debolts? even though the jaded cynic in me has to find flaws in it. It will remind you of just how important it is that we as a society look out for and (most importantly) truly love like our own flesh and blood those who don’t have someone to take care of them. Foster care and adoption are probably the only real ways that I can see myself ever having children because this world sucks too much to voluntarily put someone in it, especially when there are thousands and thousands of kids here in America looking for a nice home that simply can’t find it. It had been a while since I had really dwelt on all of the good that my family was able to do for the foster kids we helped raise, and this movie helped remind me that it was certainly all worth it and that it’s something I want to do when I’m older and have a wife and a secure source of income.

Final Score: B

Few careers are as mesmerizing as that of the performer. Whether you’re an actor or singer (or in the film I’m about to discuss’s case, both), there is something positively entrancing about the thrill and rush and power that you can gain from standing in the center of the stage and having the whole world’s eyes on you. Perhaps that is why cinema has been obsessed with itself for so long. There are so many movies about stars and performers that this beautiful documentary about the people in the opera business who aren’t the stars but members of the chorus was so refreshing. You so rarely hear about the little man and his effect in the productions that we love. In the documentary In the Shadow of the Stars, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991, you get an up close look at the lives of several different members of the chorus of the San Francisco Opera House.

Perhaps, it’s because I have a (slight) background in musical theater, but I found this documentary to be absolutely enthralling. To see people rehearsing and performing and going about even the other aspects of their lives, it brought me right back into the world of performing arts and immersed me in that sense of adrenaline and awe. The film is a combination of interviews with the members of the chorus interspersed with actual performances of their plays and also dress/ regular rehearsals. You become quite attached to the different people who are being interviewed and their stories and hopes and dreams and attachments. It’s a really human picture. One scene struck me as being particularly beautiful. A husband and wife who met each other through the opera sing a song together in their home. And, in any other circumstance, this could have been kitsch and maudlin, but in this film and with this couple, it was so sweet and sincere. It was just deeply touching.

I left the film with an immense desire to go out and watch as many operas as I could. Gosh, the operas showed had such beautiful music and such ornate stage direction and design. It was lovely. I also had a desire to start acting again but that has passed again already fortunately. If you were in theater ever or you simply just love the performing arts but never performed yourself, you need to watch this film. It’s that plain and simple. The only people I wouldn’t recommend it to are uncultured types with no interest in the higher arts. You really owe it to yourself to check this out.

Final Score: A-